Excerpt from The President's Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The President's Gardens

by Muhsin Al-Ramli

The President's Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli X
The President's Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli
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  • First Published:
    May 2018, 352 pages

    Paperback:
    Apr 2019, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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So it was one spring when they informed him that the river had flooded. It overflowed its banks and covered the fields and gardens, carrying off the nearby huts and mud houses and unearthing the hillside cemetery to scatter the bones and skulls of the dearly departed. Abdullah Kafka didn't say a thing. Ignoring the alarm of those bringing the news, he continued puffing on his water pipe as people ran in every direction before him. He said nothing until Isma'il the herdsman came in, petrified and howling, because the flood had swept away his animal pen and carried off ten sheep and one of his goats. He was sobbing as he described how his goat had floated on the surface of the water, brown with flotsam and mud. It was bleating and looking at him, as though in supplication, and Isma'il could do nothing to save it because he didn't know how to swim.

Isma'il's despair filled the café: "The water is rising. It's creeping toward the rest of the village! It's the end! It's the Day of Judgment and the end of the world!"

At this, Abdullah Kafka cleared his throat and asked him calmly, "And did the water rise so much that your goat's back touched the sky above us?"

"No," Isma'il said.

Abdullah said to him, "Then this is nothing. But would that the end had come and brought the heavens down to the earth." And he turned deliberately back to his pipe and went on smoking.

As for this morning, when they informed him that the head of his lifelong companion Ibrahim was among the nine, Abdullah replied, "It is finished! He has attained his rest. For this time he has truly died, leaving us to the chaos of fate and the futility of waiting for our own deaths, we the living dead."

Abdullah fell silent and remained motionless apart from the rise and fall of his chest with each breath. He sat frozen there for several moments. Then he began to smoke and smoke. And for the first time, the people saw tears stream from his unblinking eyes. He didn't wipe them away, and he didn't stop smoking.

When the news reached the third member of their lifelong brotherhood, Sheikh Tariq, he felt faint and all but collapsed. He sat down quickly, propping up his spirit—so as not to kill himself—by reciting the many religious sayings he had learned by heart and which were always on the tip of his tongue. He wept and asked God's forgiveness; he wept and cursed the devil so as not to be driven to despair; he wept and wept until the tears wet the edges of his red, henna-dyed beard.

Questions from the onlookers saved Tariq from succumbing to an even longer bout of sobbing. "What do we do, O sheikh? Do we bury the heads on their own, or do we wait until we come across their bodies and bury them together? They were killed in Baghdad, or on the road to Baghdad, and now Baghdad is a chaos choking on anonymous corpses, buried explosives, car bombs, foreigners, and deceit. It might be impossible to find their bodies."

Tariq said, "It's best to bury the heads, and if their bodies are discovered later on, it's not a problem for them to be buried with the heads, or separately, or in the place where they are found. Our sons and brothers are not better or more venerable than the prince of martyrs, Hussein, grandson of the Prophet, whose head they buried in Egypt or Syria while his body stayed in Iraq. Make haste to bury the heads, for the way to honor the dead is to bury them."

Only Qisma, the widow who became an orphan that early morning, opposed them and wanted to keep the head of her father, Ibrahim, unburied until his body was found. But she resisted in vain when the men refused and rebuked her, saying, "Hold your tongue, woman, and cease this madness! What do you know about such things?"

They pushed her away to where the women were gathered, many of whom were surprised at Qisma's stance since they knew she hadn't always seen eye to eye with her father. Nevertheless, as was her wont, Qisma refused to give in and began planning her next steps. Only her fat neighbor, Amira, supported her and wanted to do the same thing, to preserve her husband's head in the freezer until they located his body.

Excerpted from The President's Gardens by Mushin Al-Ramli. Copyright © 2018 by Mushin Al-Ramli. Excerpted by permission of MacLehose Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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